Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced a bill Thursday that would provide health insurance coverage for abortions to Peace Corps volunteers in the case of rape or incest.
The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013 echoes the Shaheen Amendment, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012. That law provides military women coverage for abortions in these instances. The new bill, also co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D.-N.H.), would extend coverage to women volunteers – who make up about 60 percent of those serving abroad – and overturn a 1979 appropriations bill that banned the Peace Corps from offering this benefit in its federal health plan.
Peace Corps volunteers “face inherent risks to their safety and security,” according to a statement by Lautenberg. More than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported experiencing sexual assault between 2000 and 2009, including more than 221 rapes or attempted rapes.
The bill does not yet have a House sponsor.
Echo Bergquist, who served in the Peace Corps in southern Kazakhstan, said the organization had not addressed the issue of unwanted pregnancies during her orientation in 2009. While the health plan had otherwise been more than adequate – even picking up the tab for Tylenol – she said the issue of pregnancies resulting from sexual violence were not addressed.
“Maybe it’s uncomfortable to say to these young enthusiastic Americans,” she said. “But in countries like Kazakhstan, it’s a real threat.”
During her two years as a teacher abroad, Bergquist said she often felt unsafe and was grabbed by men on several occasions. Even so, Bergquist considers herself lucky – she said her program was cut short when several cases of more serious sexual assaults were reported. The Peace Corps website cited “operational considerations” and suspended the Kazakhstan program in 2011.
The same year, Congress passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, named for a volunteer who was murdered while serving in Benin. The act, which called for more transparency and better treatment of sexual violence victims, came soon after an ABC 20/20 report about Puzey’s murder and what critics called a “blame-the-victim” culture that they said kept these issues under the radar.
While the Peace Corps responded with stricter protocols, advocates of the equity bill said covering abortions is a necessary addition to women working abroad.
“I think this should be a no-brainer. There’s no rational reason to deny women in the Peace Corps coverage,” said Andrea Friedman, a reproductive health director at the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group.
She said the 1979 appropriations act was most likely an oversight, not an outright decision to leave them without coverage. Friedman hopes the new bill passes, and gives volunteers the same benefits as their military peers.
The Shaheen Amendment passed with bipartisan support – Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Scott Brown of Massachusetts voted for it in 2012.
Calls to anti-abortion rights groups including the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council and the Susan B. Anthony List were not immediately returned.